Major film releases are again locking out writers who are immunocompromised, or can’t get to London: a few words on slipping back to the old ways.

The re-assembling of cinema, how it works and how film distribution operates over the past year has, on the whole, been really quite successful. Appreciating that cinemas in the UK have now been open and trading again for half the year, we saw record October attendances, we’ve seen hit movies, and we’ve seen a shift to a model where those who still feel uncomfortable with going into a public cinema can generally get to see a film at home a little bit quicker.

Many of these changes were on the way, but the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic clearly accelerated them. That the front-facing side of the cinema industry has moved and adapted with uncharacteristic haste.

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For a while – and this is a drum regular readers will know to be a familiar one at this site – that was reflected behind the scenes too. It’s long been a frustration for us that, even pre-Covid, if you wanted to break into writing about film and get access to the movies in advance to prepare features and reviews, you needed access to London. Either to live there, or be able to afford the time and expense to travel in. Without that? Tough. When you factor in that writing about film isn’t something that generally pays enough to cover even a fraction of a full-time salary, it’s an unbeatable obstacle for the vast majority of people. And it’s a vicious circle: if you can’t get early access to films, it’s a lot harder to sell a commission to an outlet.

As an aside, and this was pre-pandemic: we got offered a chance to talk to filmmakers in America by one of the major studios (the very big major studios), when it casually dropped in that we’d have to pay the airfare and accommodation ourselves. Problems of this ilk have been around for a long time.

What the assorted lockdowns did for a while was change the status quo though. That all of a sudden, every single major studio was offering a screener link access to reviewers for the vast bulk of films. There were one or two exceptions – Tenet, the notable one – but there was a real step towards some kind of meritocracy and fairness of opportunity. Again, to repeat: there wasn’t a studio that didn’t offer these links at some point to a lockdown release.

Then, over the months after cinemas reopened earlier this year, some quickly went back to the old way of doing things. Many, though, didn’t. Warner Bros for one offered a press screening of Dune for those in the north of England: a small but important step where a major blockbuster was concerned. Altitude is, behind the scenes, working its backside off to provide regional opportunities for film writers. Many will offer a preview screener link still.

Yet the irony isn’t lost that at the point a fresh variant of Covid is spreading, and at a point where the UK Government is explicitly advising working from home, the drawbridge is right back up where big releases are concerned. There are three major films that I know of in UK cinemas this month where the old ways were firmly in force: if you wanted preview access – again, crucial for film writers trying to make their way in the industry, or even established writers trying to get work – then you had to get to London. This culminated earlier this week in a packed, single screening of Spider-Man: No Way Home for press in London, that let’s just say was less socially distanced than some who attended were hoping.

A cinema with taped off chairs for social distancing

No slight on the brilliant UK press team for the film, to be clear (and they really are brilliant too). Nor is there any suggestion that they broke any rules with the screening either. Furthermore, the spoilers inherent in the film meant a last minute screening and a Bond-like veil of secrecy over it all, a directive almost certainly passed down from America. But as I looked at the invite to the screening, I was left weighing up whether it was worth a health risk to go and see a film a day early. I concluded it wasn’t.

One of the other major blockbusters of this particular season I was told by a US-based writer or two was one where preview links were being made available, at least in America. I queried whether they were in the UK, and was told absolutely not. The embargo lifted, reviews went live, written again by people who can get to London.

A couple of acknowledgements. Firstly, even though I can and do get to London, it’d be remiss to not declare a vested interest. Film Stories is published from Halesowen in the West Midlands, and many of our writers aren’t even within 100 miles of the English capital. Secondly, I’ve been to a screening of one of the three films I’m talking about. I’m not specifically naming names, because it’s not designed as a pile-on. This, instead, is a plea to the film industry to finally sort this out.

By jumping back to the way things used to be, we now find ourselves in a world where not only is there a geographical firewall for those looking to break into this side of the industry, but I think we have to actively acknowledge that it’s outright discriminating against the immunocompromised. Some form of Covid-19 is now going to be with us for the future, that much people seem to agree on, with the hope that it gets to a point where it’s mild enough we can get proper normality back. But for those vulnerable to diseases of its ilk, the door is slammed shut in their faces.

What makes this doubly frustrating is that for the best part of a year, there was a logical way in. That the industry had proven sending select screener preview links to writers had worked, and so many barriers were dismantled in one go. Fears that writers would leak the films concerned onto piracy sites were ill-founded. Fears that spoilers would leak, likewise (ironically, Spider-Man: No Way Home spoilers were leaked from a physical screening anyway). It felt like a new status quo.

The reverse back to the old way of doing things, especially as we now move into a fresh wave of the pandemic, remains both baffling and miserable. And we’re left with the same old, same old. It’s no slight on the critics who do get access, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying their work. But just that plea: let this geographical and health-centric gatekeeping end. Let’s give opportunities for brilliant, fresh voices, and not shut out those – both new and existing – who find themselves not unreasonably nervous about sitting in a packed London screening, even if they were able to get there in the first place.

There has to be a better way. For a while, there was. There surely must be again.

Images: BigStock

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